Well, well…its back in our hands, as Mesut Özil told the world via Twitter.
After one of the most underwhelming starts to a European campaign in recent years, we have now one chance to go beyond the group stage and get in the mix with Europe’s élite when the competition starts again.
Before thinking about the knock-out phase, anyway, we need to go to Greece and win with a two-goal margin or score at least four, which is anything but easy if you consider that we have lost each of the three games we played at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium.
It needs to be said that we always played there with nothing at stake. In 2009 we were already assured of finishing top of our group and we fielded a League Cup-style team, with Fran Merida (19 years old), Kyle Bartley (18), Tom Cruise (18), Carlos Vela (20), Jack Wilshere (17) and Kerrea Gilbert (19) all starting. In 2012 we were already qualified for the next round (but could have finished top of the group) and the following year, again, we were already qualified and assured of the top spot, and started youngsters like Francis Coquelin, Emmanuel Frimpong and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Again, it is not going to be easy but history doesn’t really matter, this time it is a completely different story.
There is something that struck me during Arsène Wenger’s press conference before the game against Dinamo Zagreb: the manager said that – SHOULD WE QUALIFY – we could be a threat for any team in the Champions League.
It is quite a bold statement to make, especially when, on the face of it, you have a very small chance to actually qualify but I agree, we do have a bloody exciting side, when everyone is fit. It’s a big if – as usual – but it’s undeniable that our squad is one of the most talented and best-shaped of the lot.
It doesn’t mean we are equipped to win it – because Barcelona and Bayern both look far superior to any other Club – but football is not an exact science and anything could happen, if we pull the result we need in Greece.
This campaign reminds me of the 2003-2004’s, where defeats against Internazionale and Dinamo Kiev, interspersed by a goalless draw against Lokomotiv Moscow, seemed to end any hope of making ground in Europe for one of the finest squads the Arsenal had ever had; back then, three consecutive wins allowed us to go through, easily beat Celta Vigo in the first-round before surrendering to Wayne Bridge’s last-gasp goal at Highbury in one of the most heart-breaking nights I can remember. We could have and should have qualified for the semi-finals, at least – if not go all the way.
One could argue that the soon-to-be Invincibles had more individual talents and more steel, compared to the current group of players, but the majority of them built their reputations along the way – like Kolo Touré, Lauren, Freddie Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva and Jens Lehmann, to some extent – after arriving as unknown or unimpressive signings.
Also, that team didn’t have many options on the bench – with only veterans like Ray Parlour and Martin Keown or bit-part players like Nwankwo Kanu, Pascal Cygan and Sylvain Wiltord available; that team was working wonderfully well as an unit and lack of injuries helped building the understanding a chemistry – which is the only thing that our current team is missing, in my opinion.
Like the Invincibles, our current team has the quality, strength, experience and speed to hurt anyone (including OURSELVES, unfortunately) and has more solutions from the bench: not long time ago, our strikers on the bench were an overweight Andrey Arshavin, the forgotten-man Marouane Chamakh and the mystery pack Park Chu-young; now we have Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – you must admit we improved, here!
When everyone is fit and we can start the same team on regular basis, we proved we can be a real threat: we proved that in the league, where we are one of the most consistent team of the past twelve months, and there is no reason we can show the same consistency and continuity this season, too.
We shouldn’t be in a situation where we need a big result to qualify, but we are; the game against Olympiacos in Athens could be a fantastic confidence-boosting rendezvous and a real season-changer, as were the win against Manchester City last year at the Etihad Stadium and the recent win against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
If we get the result and qualify with the next round, our morale will go sky-high and the return to fitness for our injured players could combine with that and make the difference between a successful season and a truly memorable one.